By John L. Smith
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - A Nevada jury on Thursday began deliberating the fate of six armed supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in a tense 2014 standoff with federal agents that drew hundreds of protesters and made headlines worldwide.
The six defendants are the first of 17 people to go on trial charges related to the standoff at Bundy's property near Bunkerville, 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Las Vegas, in a case that has come to symbolize tensions in the U.S. West over the federal ownership of land that ranchers use to graze cattle.
“These people took the law into their own hands and used guns,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre said in federal district court in Las Vegas on Thursday. He said the men threatened federal officers and that the standoff, during which no shots were fired, could have resulted in a bloodbath.
The men, who prosecutors have said were associated with or had been in contact with militia groups, were among hundreds who traveled to the ranch on April 12, 2014, to stand up for Bundy, whose refusal to pay $1 million in grazing fees for running his cattle on federal land became a cause celebre on the political right.
The prosecution described the defendants as armed, dangerous and intimidating to Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service officers who were present to provide security during a court-ordered impoundment of Bundy’s cattle. Outgunned, authorities released the cattle and left the area.
Bundy and two of his sons are defendants in the second of three scheduled federal trials later this year.
Lawyers for the defendants said the men posed no threat but were simply backing Bundy amid government overreach in a dispute over land-use policy.
During his closing argument Thursday morning, defense attorney Shawn Perez cast defendant Ricky Lovelien as a proud patriot whose participation was a form of community service.
Attorney Todd Leventhal, who represents defendant O. Scott Drexler, accused the government of deception.
“Just because he goes to a protest rally does not put him in a conspiracy,” Leventhal said.
Gregory Burleson, Drexler, Todd Engel, Lovelien, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart are charged with conspiracy against the government, conspiracy to impede a federal officer, assault, threatening and obstruction of justice.
They are also charged with extortion, interstate travel in aid of extortion and using a firearm during a crime of violence.
(Reporting by John L. Smith in Las Vegas; editing by Tom Heneghan and Sharon Bernstein)